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Newsmaker: Jeffrey A. Manning

Lightning rod judge gets high marks in Baumhammers case

Monday, May 14, 2001

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On day nine of the capital case against Richard S. Baumhammers, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning was in a dark mood.

Judge Jeffrey Manning chats with reporters as they wait for the jury to return with a verdict in the Richard Baumhammers murder trial last week. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

A long day stretched into the evening and promised to go much longer because defense attorneys called a witness who was incarcerated in the Beaver County Jail.

By 7 p.m., the judge was tired, the jury was exhausted and the nerves of court personnel were frayed after an unbroken stretch in the courtroom with no end in sight.

A long delay waiting for a witness was not something Manning wanted to put the 16-member panel through. The jurors in the high-profile, multiple-count homicide case were sequestered, spending their days in court, their nights in a hotel, separated from their families. Manning had made it clear to all from the start that for their sake, he would not tolerate wasted time, long delays or courtroom shenanigans.

"Get [the sheriffs] on the phone. Tell them to use the damn lights and sirens. That's what they're for," Manning screamed at Sandy Leasure, his efficient and tolerant secretary.

The judge's outburst, complete with flailing arms, was punctuated by the smoke from his ever-present cigar.

 
 
Jeffrey A. Manning

Date of Birth: May 8, 1947

Hometown: Monroeville

In the news: Manning was the judge who oversaw the capital case against Richard S. Baumhammers. The Mt. Lebanon man was convicted Thursday of five counts of first degree murder and received five death sentences.

Quote: "You can write what you want, but this is my motto. This really is how I've tried to live my life," he says, pointing to a tiny plaque on the wall of his office amid a collection of memorabilia. The plaque contains the words of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi: "The quality of a person's life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence regardless of their chosen field of endeavor."

Education: Graduated from Gateway High School in 1965; bachelor's degree from Dickinson College in 1969; law degree from Duquesne University in 1972.

Family: Wife, Kathleen, two grown children.

   
 

The scene was so comical, it prompted one person in his office to wisecrack, "He still doesn't understand that he's not really in charge here, does he?"

"No, he doesn't," Leasure shot back, giving the judge a fiery look.

Manning started to laugh and threw his arms up in gracious defeat.

There are some things that even a judge can't control. Secretaries are one of them.

If the Allegheny County Courthouse is the center of the legal community, then Manning's third-floor chambers are its heart and soul. It is here that the judge who is serving his second 10-year term on the bench holds court, literally and figuratively.

Manning's courtroom, office and a small anteroom are always a hub of activity, and moreso over the past two weeks with the Baumhammers trial under way.

It is here that sheriff's deputies, defense attorneys, prosecutors, reporters, secretaries, court clerks and others gather to share gossip and jokes, discuss currents events, and of course, study the law.

In the midst of it all is Manning. He is just as likely to relate a hilarious court story as he is to pull out law books and hold an impromptu law class to debate legal theory. He will question, cajole and challenge. He can be irascible and condescending. He is never without a purpose.

"Even if you don't agree with him, he gets you thinking and in doing so, maybe you can find something you can use in court later," said defense attorney Sumner Parker. "I think he is a teacher and he likes to think of himself as a teacher. He wants lawyers to do a good lawyerly job."

Parker, like other defense attorneys in the courthouse, jokes that Manning, 54, a former federal prosecutor, is always the second prosecutor in the courtroom when cases are being argued. Even so, the judge is considered to be imminently prepared, driving himself as hard as he drives those around him.

"In terms of rules of evidence and courtroom procedure, there is nobody smarter," said Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus, formerly the county's public defender. "He has a brilliant legal mind, he's very well read, he's a good teacher and he's probably one of the most loyal friends you could have. He has his warts. But I love him, warts and all."

That is not to say he is not without critics. In 1999, Manning didn't get the Allegheny County Bar Association's recommendation for retention, though it mattered not to voters who re-elected him. Insiders said the bar association's decision happened, in part, because female lawyers perceive him to be sexist and voted against him.

Off the bench, those who know him best say he is a sexist, but only in that old-fashioned "let me call you honey, baby, sweetie" sense of the term. On the bench, those who practice in front of him say he is an equal opportunity jurist, a judge who appreciates a sound legal argument regardless of the gender of its maker.

The bar association's vote also came after a two-year stretch in which Manning had been accused publicly of uttering a racial slur during a dispute with an airport worker. He was cleared of the allegations by the Court of Judicial Discipline and has filed a defamation suit against several people and the television station WPXI. The suit is pending.

With all that behind him, Manning has moved forward and his handling of the Baumhammers proceeding, his 18th capital case, has put him back in the news. Court watchers agree that he managed it efficiently.

"He runs a very taut courtroom," Nauhaus observed.

Defense attorney William H. Difenderfer praised Manning's handling of the case and said that even in light of the lightning-rod emotion surrounding the trial, the judge never wavered.

"Everything that should have been heard was heard by the jury," Difenderfer said.

While there are certain to be appellate issues --- including Manning's decisions about evidence, specifically jailhouse phone tapes he admitted for the prosecution's rebuttal -- there is no question his rulings were well researched, well thought out and well reasoned, even in situations where there is little case law.

"You know, I hate him," said Difenderfer who outside the courtroom is a friend of the judge. "I hate him, but I love him."



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